The police and the journalist

There’s a saying that goes: you show me the man and I’ll show you the rule. Recently, Delhi police arrested Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking site New Alternatives, for posting an “objectionable tweet” in 2018 that allegedly undermined religious beliefs. The tweet in question was an image from a 1983 Hindi film, Kissi Se Na Kehna! A day later, KPS Malhotra, Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), claimed that transactions of over ₹50 lakh had been made in Mr Zubair’s bank account for three months. New Alternatives co-founder Pratik Sinha responded on Twitter claiming that the police were linking the donations received by New Alternatives to Mr. Zubair. The allegation, in fact, was never part of the police submissions to the court asking for Mr. Zubair’s pre-trial detention, nor was it mentioned during the oral arguments in court. As New Alternatives is a fact-checking platform, it was quick to provide its version on social media platforms. But there are several cases where the defendants do not have this possibility.

The truth is, if the publicity a case receives helps police push a story toward a specific end, law enforcement is more than happy to come forward. Each state’s police have a media policy. In Delhi, for example, no officer below the rank of DCP is authorized to issue an official citation to the press. This does not mean that a journalist cannot have a source in the subsidiary ranks.

In 2010, the Home Office issued an advisory to the states on “Police Media Policy”. One point read: “Officers should limit their briefings to essential facts and not rush to the press with half-baked, speculative or unconfirmed information about ongoing investigations. The notice also stated that “it should be ensured that there is no violation of the legal rights, privacy and human rights of the defendants/victims”. It is common knowledge that the police provide half-baked speculative statements to journalists. At what point, then, should the journalist stop trusting the police? While common practice, at least in the print media, is to get the defendant’s version, many TV outlets rarely think so. Individuals are marked guilty according to a scenario. No one is waiting for the court’s verdict.

Crime reporters depend on the police for information. But a rowdy reporter will always ask questions if the information is speculative or seems motivated. Often, thanks to his instinct, the journalist releases articles that do not tick the required boxes. There have been instances where journalists have been excluded from police briefings for critical reporting.

In an unhealthy trend, also fueled by the desire to get likes and retweets, police or law enforcement are scheduling press conferences if it suits them. In the absence of implementation of the media policy, this in many cases has a negative impact on the accused. The process becomes the punishment.

A suggested point in the 2010 policy was that “no statements of opinion and judgment should be made by the police when briefing the media”. In 2020, then Bihar Police Chief Gupteshwar Pandey told the press that making any type of comment regarding the state’s Chief Minister was beyond the aukaat (status) of actor Rhea Chakraborty, who was under investigation in connection with the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Although Mr Pandey later apologized for the statement, it sent the message that such conduct is acceptable if it suits the political narrative, as there have been no known repercussions of his statement by the State or the Center.

That the police act as an extension of the political dispensation is not new. It is also common to carry belongings and arrest troublesome people for the establishment. The system offers impunity to these officials. But what is new is the acceptance of such behavior by the media and the general public.

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